Latin Words and Grammar

The Indirect Question in Latin

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Guest arti­cle writ­ten by Peter Bar­rios-Lech Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics, Col­lege of Lib­er­al Arts, Uni­ver­si­ty of Massachusetts.

I. An All-Too Direct Question About The Indirect Question.

One evening, about an hour before the start of my night-time Roman com­e­dy sem­i­nar, three of us – two grad­u­ate stu­dents and I – met in my office to under­take our week­ly rite of sight read­ing from Plau­tus. The goal was to bet­ter under­stand Plau­tine Latin, which, as I would soon learn, is not always as sim­ple as it appears.

So, that night, the Pseudo­lus, with its typ­i­cal Plau­tine plot. A young man has fall­en in love with a pros­ti­tute. He doesn’t have the mon­ey to pur­chase her from her pimp. So he demands that his slave get the need­ed mon­ey, using that cun­ning that gave him his name, Pseudo­lus, (ψευ-dolos, “Mon­sieur Flim-Flam”). 

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this arti­cle “The Indi­rect Ques­tion in Latin.”.

Here are the first lines of that play, first pro­duced in 191 B.C., in front of the tem­ple to the Great Moth­er, Magna Mater. The tem­ple steps are packed with seat­ed audi­ence mem­bers; there is stand­ing room only for the pre­miere of the lat­est com­e­dy-opera from the now leg­endary six­ty or so year old Umbri­an poet. Sit your­self down among these spec­ta­tors to watch the open­ing tableau. Do you see the young man, dressed in the ele­gant hima­tion? The youth grasps two wood­en leaves, each cov­ered on one side with wax, inscribed with a mis­sive from his enslaved girl­friend. He sobs: Eheu!Eheu! The audi­ence laughs as Pseudo­lus enters from the wing, scur­ry­ing behind, his grotesque mask, with the flanged lips of its mouth, twist­ed into a mock­ing smile. From that aper­ture, the actor play­ing Pseudo­lus booms forth the famous open­ing lines one morn­ing – this morn­ing – on the Pala­tine. His mock­ing­ly shrill voice con­trasts with audi­ble sobs of the youth, pro­vok­ing fur­ther tit­ters from the audience:


Ps. Licet me id scire quid sit? nam tu me antidhac 

supre­mum habuisti comitem con­sili­is tuis. 

Cal. Idem ani­mus nunc est. Ps. Face me cer­tum quid tibist;  

iuvabo aut re aut opera aut con­silio bono. (Pl. Ps. 16–19, Leo)

Ps. Can I know what the mat­ter is?? After all, I’ve always been

your colonel, cap­tain, con­sigliere in chief (mock-salutes).

Cal. (glances between sobs) You con­tin­ue to be. Ps. Then bring me into the loop: 

(cool­ly) I’ll help with cash, ser­vice-on-demand, or good advice. (Pl. Ps. 16–19, Leo)

Right now, we do not focus on ques­tions of stag­ing, on the play as a doc­u­ment of mid-Repub­li­can Roman cul­ture; on plot and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion – those ques­tions we’ll broach in class, lat­er on. Right now, our aim is to come to grips with the language.

À pro­pos, one stu­dent asks, “why does Pseudo­lus use the sub­junc­tive here (she points to the first line, bold­ed), but not also here (third line, also bolded)? 

I hes­i­tate; com­pli­ment the stu­dent: this is a sharp obser­va­tion. I have no good answer. Maybe meter is at stake in the sec­ond instance (face me cer­tum quid tibist); maybe at this peri­od of Latin there was more vari­a­tion of mood in the indi­rect ques­tion clause. We head to class, and I resolve some­day to find a bet­ter answer.

II. Revisiting The Golden Rule On The Indirect Question. 

Every­one knows the rule about the indi­rect ques­tion in Clas­si­cal Latin. Here are some well-known ver­sions of it in gram­mars used across Amer­i­can col­lege classrooms:


“An Indi­rect Ques­tion takes its verb in the Sub­junc­tive” (Allen and Gree­nough, §574)


“[t]he Depen­dent Inter­rog­a­tive is always in the Sub­junc­tive” (Gilder­sleeve and Lodge § 467)

So, accord­ing to the rule, you want to say nescio cur legam hanc sym­bo­l­am “I don’t know why I’m read­ing this essay,” not nescio cur lego hanc sym­bo­l­am.

In Ger­man gym­na­sia,or high schools, the sub­junc­tive in that depen­dent clause was required, “[a]ccording to the rule in Clas­si­cal Latin – a rule which teach­ers stamped into the mem­o­ry of their stu­dents, [that] the sub­junc­tive stands in all sub­or­di­nate inter­rog­a­tive claus­es” (Wack­er­nagel, Lec­tures on Syn­tax, 1929, I, 242).

So was the rule stamped into my mem­o­ry, and that of many oth­er Latin stu­dents. But now, in light of a student’s keen obser­va­tion, I want­ed to revis­it this Gold­en Age Latin precept. 

III. Getting The Data

How often was the indica­tive used in Latin indi­rect ques­tion claus­es? More often in cer­tain authors? Gen­res? Maybe it was just an “Ear­ly Latin” thing? Would gath­er­ing data and, iso­lat­ing pat­terns from it help to under­stand the vari­a­tion we saw?

Ide­al­ly, I would have gath­ered all the indi­rect ques­tions in Ear­ly and Clas­si­cal Latin. Real­is­ti­cal­ly, I could prob­a­bly cov­er the sub­ject just for Ear­ly Latin. I found a pock­et of time unclaimed by oth­er oblig­a­tions – my train ride back home – dur­ing which I could read. And so, Plau­tus, Ennius, Cato, Pacu­vius, Ter­ence, Accius, Lucil­ius, and oth­er hoary Ear­ly Latin authors became my trav­el­ling com­pan­ions for about a year’s worth of MBTA train rides, Boston to Prov­i­dence, back home from work.

I began with – who else? – Plau­tus, col­lect­ing on a spread­sheet any indi­rect ques­tion I found, tag­ging each token – each indi­vid­ual instance – with infor­ma­tion about mood used, the “head” verb (for instance scio quid agas, vide num vener­it, and so on); sub­or­di­na­tor (quid and num in the exam­ples just men­tioned); speak­er and addressee, and more. I prob­a­bly spent equal amounts of time star­ing at the Latin, as I did at my Excel spreadsheets.

But it was worth it, because, to be hon­est, this project was moti­vat­ed only in part by my desire to get the answer; it was also at least in equal mea­sure dri­ven by the desire to revis­it some of my favorite authors – the fel­low com­muters I men­tioned above.

Once they had sur­ren­dered the data to me, I start­ed look­ing through it. What did I find?

IV. Wilhelm Studemund

Brief digres­sion. I actu­al­ly am not the first per­son (crazy enough?) to try this. 135 years ago, in the hotbed of Latin stud­ies that was late 19th C. Strass­burg, Ger­many, Wil­helm Stude­mu­nd had gained great fame by deci­pher­ing a palimpsest that was thought near­ly illeg­i­ble, the famous Ambrosianus (MS A), rep­re­sent­ing our ear­li­est (5th C CE) wit­ness to Plau­tus, whose come­dies had been copied down in M(anu)S(criptus) A(mbrosianus/a) with beau­ti­ful Rus­tic Cap­i­tals. Stude­mu­nd had a nose for unearthing the text hid­den under or between the lines of palimpses­ts. For instance, he had also dis­cov­ered the let­ters of Fron­to latent for cen­turies under­neath the records, the Acta, of the Coun­cil of Calche­don. Any­way, long before Stude­mu­nd had got­ten to it, the Plau­tus man­u­script, “A” had been writ­ten over with a com­men­tary on the Book of Kings. Then, in the 19th C., a cer­tain Car­di­nal Ange­lo Mai had used a chem­i­cal to try to recov­er the under­ly­ing text of Plau­tus, but in effect did much dam­age to it. Stude­mu­nd, in lat­er deci­pher­ing the dam­aged text, end­ed up los­ing his sight (the whole sto­ry can be found in Texts and Trans­mis­sions, pp. 302–307). 

As he worked on his tran­scrip­tion, Stude­mu­nd was also over­see­ing a ver­i­ta­ble hive of activ­i­ty in the field of Ear­ly Latin. His grad­u­ate stu­dents pub­lished their find­ings in a work titled Stude­mu­nds Stu­di­en, or “Studemund’s Stud­ies”; they can be read here and here (the lat­ter a search­able ver­sion only). (That’s the title, but with­in the vol­ume, each indi­vid­ual opus­cu­lum is duly attrib­uted to its author) They are exam­ples of a tra­di­tion of philol­o­gy that con­tin­ues today, with the dif­fer­ence that some of Studemund’s stu­dents wrote the mono­graphs in Latin. (Not a few clas­si­cists, how­ev­er, have begun reviv­ing this time-hon­ored tra­di­tion, that of pub­lish­ing seri­ous schol­ar­ship in Latin, see here and here; not to men­tion the many con­tri­bu­tions to this very site.) 

Among the Stu­di­en, you will find Paulus Richter’s 254-page Latin mono­graph on inter­jec­tions – every­thing you want­ed to know about heuseheuaha, and more.Among the Stu­di­en, you’ll also find Eduard Becker’s mono­graph on the Ear­ly Latin indi­rect ques­tion – writ­ten in a lucid peri­od­ic style. Work­ing my way through it, I soon real­ized that Beck­er had read every­thing. From the extant 26 Roman come­dies, and the frag­ments of lost Ear­ly Latin dra­ma, to the frag­ments from Lucil­ius’ lost Satires and Ear­ly Latin inscrip­tions, all of this in the time before PHI, JSTOR, Google, and super-fast Inter-Library Loan. Becker’s work has been so fun­da­men­tal, that it has informed every­thing writ­ten on the indi­rect ques­tion since: his prin­ci­pal find­ings are basi­cal­ly those you’ll find in the stan­dard ref­er­ence gram­mars. No-one has real­ly super­seded Beck­er, and had I known about him, I might not have even embarked on what now, hav­ing read his mono­graph, seemed like a fool­hardy mission.

V. The Becker Rules 

There are cas­es where the indica­tive is nor­mal in indi­rect ques­tions. Here are sev­er­al, elu­ci­dat­ed by Becker:


The main-clause verb is a verb of ‘say­ing’ and it is imper­a­tive in mood. Typ­i­cal are phras­es like obse­cro her­cle loquere, quis is est (Pl. Bac. 553), “tell me, please, where he is!” The indica­tive in such indi­rect ques­tions is nor­mal because, as Beck­er explains, loquere adds empha­sis, but is hard­ly nec­es­sary to the syn­tax; that is, you could express the same urgent ques­tion with­out loquere. And so, loquere and relat­ed forms, like diccedo, and nar­ra,when intro­duc­ing indi­rect claus­es, func­tion more like emphat­ic par­ti­cles than ‘real’ main-clause verbs. 

The excep­tions are numer­ous enough that we should prob­a­bly speak of a ten­den­cy rather than a rule. Thus, of all the instances of such ques­tions in Plau­tus (those like obse­cro her­cle loquere, quis is est), 23% (36 out of the total 158 rel­e­vant instances) have the sub­junc­tive; and, in Ter­ence, 20% (11 out of 54) have the sub­junc­tive where we might have expect­ed the indica­tive. Here is an exam­ple:  loquere por­ro, quid sit actum (Pl. Mer. 199): “tell me, what happened.” 

What is the dif­fer­ence between loquere por­ro, quid sit actum and obse­cro her­cle loquere, quis is est? I per­son­al­ly don’t see any. Prob­a­bly, back when these lines were first uttered aloud to a Roman audi­ence, each had a dis­tinc­tive into­na­tion­al con­tour: maybe the sec­ond was pro­nounced as two into­na­tion­al units (Tell me: who is he?) and the first as one (tell me what hap­pened). But maybe, in anoth­er ear­ly per­for­mance of this same play, anoth­er actor pro­nounced the ques­tions with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent intonation. 

Exclaim­ing some­thing. Excla­ma­tions and ques­tions draw from the same set of ‘ques­tion’ words. This is as true in Eng­lish (“what won­der­ful weath­er!” and “what is the weath­er like today?”) as it is for Latin. Here’s a flab­ber­gast­ed woman ask­ing her hus­band if he under­stands the con­se­quences of his exces­sive pun­ish­ment of their son: non vides quan­tum mali ex <ea> re excites? (Ter. Hau. 1013), “don’t you see how much trou­ble you’re caus­ing because of it?”. And here is a tricky slave, point­ing out that his own intel­li­gence super­sedes that of his notion­al bet­ter:  o Phaedria, incredibile[st] quan­tum erum ante eo sapi­en­tia (Ter. Ph. 247), “O Phaedria, it’s incred­i­ble how far I excel mas­ter in wisdom!” 

The sec­ond is not a ques­tion at all: it is an excla­ma­tion. While ques­tions seek answers (as the woman’s does, in the first exam­ple from Ter­ence), excla­ma­tions present some propo­si­tion (“how smart I am!”) as exceed­ing expec­ta­tions, and thus as wor­thy of note. No won­der, then, as Beck­er rea­soned, indi­rect ques­tions like the tricky slave’s don’t take the indica­tive: for they are not ques­tions of any kind, at all. 

To repeat: excla­ma­tions ask us to notice some­thing that is, well, note-wor­thy. Some­times, in Ear­ly Latin plays, the char­ac­ter asks us or some­one direct­ly to note some­thing sur­pris­ing, as, for instance, in the fol­low­ing, about the high cost of liv­ing in late 3rd C. BCE Rome: uiden ut annonast grauis? (Pl. St. 1070), “do you see how expen­sive the cost of liv­ing is?” Again, no ques­tion is being asked here. Rather the speak­er – a slave in this play – asks us to con­sid­er what is – for him – an upset­ting propo­si­tion. You don’t even need the viden (or vide):  ut annonast gravis! would also have done the trick. It turns out that any­time an excla­ma­tion is intro­duced first by a call to notice – viden or vide – the sub­or­di­nate clause always has the indicative.

There are oth­er ten­den­cies I could give. For instance, when the verb dico heads an ut clause, as in dico her­cle ego quoque ut fac­turus sum (Pl. As. 376), an indica­tive always appears in the ut clause. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe such phras­es are calques, or loan trans­la­tions, of the Greek indi­rect ques­tion, which doesn’t as a rule, take any par­tic­u­lar mood, and is intro­duced with ὡς (equiv­a­lent to Latin ut when it means “how”). At any rate, the two ten­den­cies I just iso­lat­ed above are the most clear-cut. 

VI. The Difference Between Plautus And Terence

Plau­tus and Ter­ence are about as dif­fer­ent as two play­wrights work­ing in the same genre could be. If Plau­tus is Robin Williams, then Ter­ence is Jer­ry Sein­feld. If Plau­tus is Queen, then Ter­ence is Radio­head. If Plau­tus were alive today, he would have direct­ed Ani­mal House; if Ter­ence were, we would praise his Side­ways. The dif­fer­ences run deep­er than the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and the moods cre­at­ed – they affect even the lan­guage the play­wrights use. 

For instance, if you glance at the tables below, you’ll see that Plau­tus uses indi­rect ques­tions with the indica­tive more often – sig­nif­i­cant­ly more – than Terence. 

Here’s the sum­ma­ry for Plautus:


Now check out Terence:


So you see that of all the indi­rect ques­tions in Plau­tus, 27.0% have the indica­tive; few­er – 19.7% –  have the indica­tive in Ter­ence. Why is that? 

One idea is that Terence’s plays rep­re­sent a lat­er stage in the lan­guage – he wrote some forty years after Plau­tus was active – so that, in the lat­er play­wright, we see an advance towards the norm of Clas­si­cal Latin: sub­junc­tive in the sub­or­di­nate ques­tion clause.

Anoth­er idea rests on Terence’s cul­ti­va­tion of a sup­ple, ele­gant style: Cicero and Cae­sar were such avid read­ers of Ter­ence that they wrote epi­grams on Terence’s lec­tus “care­ful­ly cho­sen” (Cicero), purus “gram­mat­i­cal­ly clean” (Cae­sar) ser­mo (“gram­mat­i­cal­ly clean”, yes, he says, but not fun­ny at all). Is the high inci­dence of the sub­junc­tive, then, a sign of Terence’s care­ful writing? 

To check this, I decid­ed to com­pare my cor­pus of infor­mal Ear­ly Latin (most­ly com­e­dy, but also Lucil­ius’ satires); against the data pulled from styl­is­ti­cal­ly ele­vat­ed Latin – includ­ing the frag­ments of tragedy and Roman his­tor­i­cal plays, the prae­tex­tae – about 1700 vers­es or parts of vers­es in Otto Ribbeck’s third edi­tion of the frag­ments, in addi­tion to epic, his­to­ri­ans (none of whose works exist in their entire), and oth­er prose writ­ers (most­ly Cato). 

In seri­ous gen­res, the indica­tive in the sub­or­di­nate clause occurs less fre­quent­ly than in light gen­res. The dif­fer­ence between the two pro­por­tions – 14.3% for seri­ous writ­ing and 25.1% for light gen­res – is sig­nif­i­cant. What this meant to me was that indica­tives in sub­or­di­nate ques­tion claus­es were prob­a­bly part of the infor­mal, col­lo­qui­al reg­is­ter of the language.

VII. The Big Takeaway

Recent research for Clas­si­cal Latin has shown that the indica­tive used in sub­or­di­nate indi­rect ques­tion claus­es was a phe­nom­e­non of a more relaxed style of speech. Even such a gram­mat­i­cal purist as Cae­sar, when writ­ing a let­ter, lets such an indica­tive slip in (Att.9.7c.1.5–6). Such must have been the case in the Ear­ly Latin peri­od, too: the indica­tive abound­ed in less care­ful speech – the kind of speech of the quick­ly dashed off note; of a casu­al con­ver­sa­tion; of a com­ic dia­logue. In a word, there’s a basic con­ti­nu­ity – at least in indi­rect ques­tion usage – between the Ear­ly Latin and Clas­si­cal Latin period. 

That indi­rect ques­tion-claus­es con­tain­ing indica­tives mark an infor­mal style goes togeth­er with oth­er find­ings on Roman com­e­dy: one study, for instance, shows that con­trac­tions like currendum’st (< cur­ren­dum est Ps. 331) and molestu’s (< moles­tus esMer. 767), are char­ac­ter­is­tic of infor­mal speech, too. In this respect, also, Roman com­e­dy imi­tates the con­ver­sa­tion­al style, just as this blog­post does, with its con­trac­tions, occa­sion­al sen­tence frag­ments, and bor­row­ings from the lex­i­con of infor­mal speech, like “inter­jec­tion­al ‘well’”.

Peter Barrios-Lech

Peter Barrios-Lech

Peter Barrios-Lech is an Associate Professor of Classics at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts. His research interests touch upon a variety of areas of ancient literature, e.g. Roman and Greek drama, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and reception. Drawing from his research into colloquial Latin, he incorporates spoken Latin regularly into his teaching method. In the summer, he heads up the Latin immersion course Conventiculum Bostoniense.
Written by Peter Barrios-Lech

Written by Peter Barrios-Lech

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